AUGUSTA – Efforts to resolve 163 disputed ballots in a midcoast Senate race could bring an end to speculation today over which political party will ultimately control the Maine Senate and set the agenda for the next legislative session.
Throughout the day Monday, a recount was held for Senate District 16 that initially produced a two-vote margin of victory for Christopher Hall, a Bristol Democrat. After the recount was completed, Hall increased his margin to nine votes against Republican opponent Leslie Fossel of Alna.
According to Julie Flynn of the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, the recount determined that 8,842 ballots were cast for Hall and 8,833 ballots were cast for Fossel. The 163 disputed ballots were challenged for physical abnormalities identified by the counters, who believed the appearance of the ballots cast doubt upon the voter’s intent.
Lawyers for both candidates said they would return to a garage at Maine State Police headquarters today to begin the expected lengthy process of winnowing the number of disputed ballots to a margin that will produce an indisputable winner in the race.
“We have an idea of how things might narrow down,” said Jonathan Hull, a lawyer representing Hall.
“But if we don’t get there, we don’t get there,” said Steve Lechner, an attorney for Fossel.
The partisan split on the 163 ballots was not announced by Flynn. Some Republicans said Democrats had raised more objections; Democrats countered Republicans were questioning every ballot that contained the slightest imperfection. Unless enough of the disputed ballots can be resolved in Hall’s favor to produce a concession by Fossel, the outcome of the race would remain in limbo.
In such an event, Deputy Secretary of State Rebecca Wyke said her office would not enter an apparent winner in District 16 when the entire list of new officeholders is sent to Gov. Angus King, who is required by law to certify the election results. According to the Maine Constitution, each house of the Legislature shall determine the qualifications of its members. Under such circumstances, the Senate would have to devise a way to convene a panel of inquiry to inspect the disputed ballots and declare a winner in the race.
In prior years, party control usually has not been in doubt. But this year – pending the failure to resolve the District 16 race – the incoming Maine Senate is evenly divided between 17 Republicans and 17 Democrats. The atmosphere has rarely been less bipartisan than it is at the moment. Democrats are still stinging from a barrage of negative attack ads launched by a group of GOP sympathizers in the closing weeks of the campaign season. The Democrats claimed the mailed fliers contained distortions and outright lies about their candidates’ records.
Hall, a former British subject, was touted as the most egregious victim of political character assassination when an ad featuring a picture of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles suggested that the Democrat approved of adultery. Days after the election, GOP Senate President Rick Bennett apologized for the advertisement.
In the event the Senate deadlocks on whether an apparent winner in the race can be conditionally seated or if even a process for beginning the ballot inspection procedure can be initiated, other recourses are available. In years past, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to review disputed ballots for legislative leaders and provide an opinion on which votes should be counted and which should be disqualified. The Senate leaders could also call for a new special election in District 16 in hope of obtaining a less ambiguous decision.
The stakes are high for both parties. If Democrats win a majority in the Senate, it will be the first time in 16 years the party has simultaneously controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. In contrast, Republicans know that the only hope they have forcing a Democratic House and governor to compromise on key issues is by overturning votes in the Senate.
Jockeying for the Senate presidency has already begun for Democrats, who are weighing the candidacies of current Senate Majority Leader Beverly Daggett of Augusta and Sen. John L. Martin of Eagle Lake. Bennett, of Norway, is expected to be re-elected as Senate president should Republicans prevail as the majority party.
In addition to either setting or influencing the legislative agenda, control of the Senate will determine which party members are assigned to powerful committee chairmanships and how committee assignments are parceled out. An out-of-favor minority Republican from Aroostook County looking for a Senate seat on the Agricultural Committee could get routed to the Marine Resources Committee. The majority party in the Senate also enjoys larger numbers of legislative staff to assist the lawmakers with research and constituent issues.
Hall said he was “confident” of surviving the challenge over disputed ballots, while Fossel said he was simply “confident this will all eventually get resolved.”